*This article contains massive spoilers for Hereditary and extensive exploration of the film – if you have not seen it yet, please come back and read another time*
Despite having already published a small review of Hereditary shortly after my first viewing, the fact that there are still numerous takes on it and that elements of the film keep coming back to me, I felt compelled to write something more about the themes and content with free reign to use spoilers. What is clear from the reception is that while some have really loved the film, others have been muted. This article intends to pick through the film in an attempt to discern why that is. Full disclosure: the more I think about it, the more I like it, although every attempt has been made to understand why people may feel underwhelmed. I should also add to that full disclosure that I always have a little more love for films that are unafraid to go fully batshit in their third act. I know this is not always popular.
Hereditary showcases the difficulty in balancing the way horror is presented and thus, how its audience should receive it. Early critical bluster focused on comparisons to The Exorcist, and distributor A24 even resorted to William Castle-esque tactics like the heart-rate monitor challenge to emphasise the scares that the film would offer. On the other hand, director Ari Aster gave interviews which highlighted the depth of the narrative and the sophisticated themes and construction. Whichever part of the marketing someone bought into, they were likely to be disappointed – the film is perhaps too slow for someone expecting a full-on series of continual frights, yet to pretend that the themes are any more sophisticated than any other mainstream horror film is a stretch.
The above makes it sound like I did not like the film, which is untrue, and actually much of it’s content has stayed with me from my first viewing and I’m eager to watch again to further unpick everything. I also have some appreciation for the marketing which leads the viewer to believe that in the grand tradition of horror films – the creepy young girl will be the cause of all the horror, when the film, in fact, abruptly does away with her early on in one of the most shocking scenes I’ve witnessed in some time.
My appreciation for Hereditary is based primarily on the technical choices used within the film. The scene in which Charlie is cruelly dispatched is thoroughly shocking and the agonisingly long time we spend in the car with Peter as he comes to terms with the situation is excrutiating. This is furthered by the moment in which Annie’s devastated howls are punctuated by an incredibly long shot of Charlie’s discarded head. Unlike some mainstream horrors Hereditary lacks the discretion to hide the full effects of physical trauma. At the same time, it is not extreme in terms of it’s European cousins, but still looks to balance the fine line between art and exploitation.
The use of miniatures and disorientating camera work adds a further layer to the way the film repeatedly unseats it’s audience. The multiple turns in plot and expectations are also intriguing, although I can understand why it might lose people, particularly in the third act. You could compare Charlie’s death to the shower scene in Psycho – as genre fans we have assumed, through our familiarity with the genre that she is the troubled child which will carry us through and then her role changes irreparably. We then look to her as a vengeful spirit to spur on the rest of the film, which is true to a point. The true nature of all the events within the film are obviously revealed as being to target the teenage son, Peter.
The fact that the film does not feel moved to indicate every occurance of something strange with a boom in soundtrack was a comfort to me. There is nothing wrong necessarily with loud noise ‘jump’ scares, but for me, the slower scenes have always stuck with me and played on my mind. A ‘jump’ allows an outlet and Hereditary is very good at managing that tension and not letting the audience off the hook too soon. An early moment in which Annie ‘sees’ her mother in her workroom is so effective, considering how simple it is. It also sets up the expectation that you should be searching the frame for unusual appearances. The moment where Annie can be seen in the corner of the ceiling behind Peter for far longer than films would normally allow further delays the inevitable ‘jump’. As a genre fan, you know it is coming, but the moment of ‘lurking’ is far more effective.
While much has been made of Hereditary‘s focus on loss and grief, I’ve not really had that as the main take away for myself. There’s no doubt that it contains an exploration of two very distinct kinds of grief through the lens of Annie. Her quiet grief for her mother, begins almost as a kind of relief (something which her husband displays far more clearly) and morphs into the realisation of profound regrets, blame and other barely-concealed resentments. Her grief for Charlie is far more ‘regular’ and based in the unfairness and ugliness of her early demise. Worse still, is that it prompts further resentment within the family. Annie’s son Peter is to blame, yet he remains her child. It is, in this sense an exploration of a family coming to terms with something profoundly disturbing that their child has done.
What Peter did and it’s impact on the family goes unheard of for a very long time within the film. So long that it took on a very unnatural quality for me. The on-going despair is furthered by the silence surrounding the incident. Almost as if to verbalise it risks unleashing the resentment into something more powerful and dangerous. The eventual dinner table confrontation between Annie and Peter is distressing. Throughout, husband Steve’s reactions are continuously pushed to the background as he becomes the only fully functional member of the family. He is, after all, the one to handle calls about grave desecration (something he keeps secret from them) and is just as invested in Peter (collecting him from school when he inflincts damage on himself). His continuous moving forward is only stalled when he breaks down in tears following a near-miss at a traffic light. It is easy (although perhaps too simplistic) to see him as a representation of more traditional masculine grief in terms of being ‘strong and silent’. Peter and Annie’s coping strategies (drugs and miniatures respectively) are shown on-screen, yet Steve’s are hardly referred to, aside from a moment in which he’s seen with prescription drugs.
While there is a thread of examining grief within the film, for me, it isn’t the whole story. If anything, the issue with Annie’s mother is the absence of grief for a person and the difficulties that causes. The main thread of Hereditary focuses on the ‘rot’ which occurs within the family. Annie’s troubled upbringing, including the loss of a brother to suicide after what appears at first to be mental illness, taints all of her interactions and the threat of her own madness is never far from the surface. I’ve seen some writings suggest that the embroidered door mat Annie finds in Ellen’s boxes toward the end are for Charlie, although I considered it that those mats were originally for Annie and her deceased brother, indicating that the desire to sacrifice a child for the benefit of the cult has been a goal for some time.
Annie’s experience threatens her current position, which at the outset of the film, appears to be a fairly comfortable one. The family home is large and well-furnished. Annie is an artist with a potentially lucrative gallery show on the horizon and on the surface, her other relationships appear to be relatively solid. Despite this, her upbringing is never far from conversation and certainly her difficulties in embracing motherhood are repeatedly referenced and blamed on her mother. Annie recreates her traumas in miniature form, claiming that she uses this to have an objective view of them. This form of control echoes that of her mother attempting to feed Charlie – something which is originally construed as something fairly innocent, until the miniature reveals otherwise.
Dialogue within the film suggests that Charlie is aware that her grandmother wished she was a boy and the ending reveals that in order to complete the ritual which Annie’s mother Ellen had planned that the spirit of Paimon must inhabit the body of a vulnerable male host. This is particularly interesting given that Paimon first appears as a woman and is also often described as having androgynous, if not womanly features. This reveals everything about the earlier parts of the film and even Charlie’s entire childhood as being engineered specifically by the cult to enable Paimon’s move to a more suitable host. In essence, three generations of the women in the Graham family are used as sacrifices – some willing and some through possession, in order to make Peter more vulnerable. Considering that Steve is also a potentially vulnerable male host, it indicates that it needs to be someone blood-related to Ellen to complete the ritual. It also explains much of Steve’s inaction throughout the film – he simply isn’t that important in the grand plan which runs through the family. Further to this, it explains Annie’s abrupt change after he is set on fire by the burning of the sketchbook (that smile *shudder*), because he is the last possible person in the way of the ritual’s completion.
All this design and intent on behalf of Ellen also indicates that Annie has been made complicit. It explains why, despite expecting her son is going to a party where there will be drink (and therefore no one of Charlie’s age) present she insists that Charlie goes along. Paimon’s symbol appears during the doomed car ride, indicating that again, the cult is enforcing some kind of supernatural will over events. The particular brutality of Charlie’s death is a further hint toward the ending ritual. Charlie’s urge to remove the head from a dead pigeon at first appears as a moment to enhance how creepy she is, but the sketch book later reveals she has also been sketching the bird’s dismembered head wearing a crown, in the same way her own severed head is crowned in Peter’s coronation. Hereditary does away with the nature/nuture debate and through supernatural means introduces us to characters who are doomed by their own legacy and are also complicit.
During my screening, it was clear that Hereditary was not hitting the right notes for some of the audience. This was partly due to the fact that they weren’t the best behaved anyway (Oh, you’ve grabbed your girlfriend’s arm during a pretty tense moment – such comedy!), but after hearing more reports (albeit anecdotally) of audiences laughing or choosing to entertain themselves it seems there is a wider problem with Hereditary. The main thing I’d suggest (and have done so already) is that the film is pure melodrama mixed with the horror. I believe that it harks back to incredibly ‘big’ performances which can tip into the ridiculous if someone is not fully on board.
In my earlier review I made reference to a few moments, particularly with Annie, where her face fills the frame, frozen in a similar manner to the reactions of Danny in the Overlook Hotel within The Shining. Again, these are big, unsubtle moments and don’t require any deep or sophisticated reading, but still add a stylistic flair. Collette’s performance is quite something and definitely deserves recognition, but the fact that it is so frantic might cause a dissonance where it leaps so far out of reality that it becomes comical. This balance between the comic and the frightening is so subjective that it is difficult to determine what works for everyone.
For me, the interactions between Annie and Peter, particularly later in the film are excrutiating to watch. Collette portrays Annie as a woman who is not entirely in control of her words and frequently they slip out before she is ready. Her desperate attempts to reduce their power and impact are unsuccessful and further her distance from the rest of the family.
Despite the over-the-top elements of the performances, it is the quieter moments, enabled by the technical choices. While Peter starts off as a pretty uninspiring, sulky teenager his evolution into an increasingly vulnerable and damaged young man is very well handled by Alex Wolff. The car scene would not have half of its power if it weren’t for the long close-up on his face as he slowly battles with what has happened and what to do next. The horror of the situation is expressed through his face and the suffocating silence. We know that his agonising contemplation will not be interrupted by any supernatural activity because that would be too much of a relief. The resulting scene took my breath away and never before has the sound of a car starting prompted such a feeling of sickness.
In the introduction to this, I expressed that I do have something of a fondness for films which unleash everything within the third act. To me, I would rather have something flawed, but interesting to watch than something more safe, which requires no further thought. This is not to say that more conventional film closes never require any further thought or interpretation, but there is often a move to tie everything up neatly so that there are no unanswered questions. Equally, I think the film actually does explain what has happened and the purpose of everything that has gone before.
The main argument against excessive third acts which provide a reveal seems to be that the reveal is at odds with the film that has gone before. I have had this conversation numerous times about Ben Wheatley’s somewhat divisive Kill List, which I’ve always maintained sows enough seeds about what is set to happen that it really isn’t a surprise – but also not perhaps an entirely logical conclusion. In similar terms, Hereditary is not subtle in it’s close ups of words appearing on the walls of the house and the fact that something supernatural is happening. Perhaps the problem is that there are so many directions that the first two acts pull in that we almost forget about the recurring symbolism. I maintain that even if people did not appreciate it as much on a first viewing, that a rewatch would reveal just how many times the ending is foretold. I intend to revisit the film when it is released on blu ray and look forward to finding more clues than I’ve spotted here.
This isn’t to say that people aren’t entitled to not like it and I’m certainly not (as some do when people don’t ‘get’ films they love) questioning the intelligence or cine-literacy of those who didn’t enjoy it or just felt underwhelmed. I’d maintain that this is still partially down to the marketing and that Hereditary is crafted in a way which separates it from more blockbuster style horror. I should also declare that I am a big appreciator of cults on film and this was no different. I can understand why people would find the increasingly excessive moments a little hard to stomach, but for me, the last few scenes have really stayed with me. The perverse ritual and crowning ceremony is exactly the sort of horror content I enjoy – fusing the supernatural with the desires of human beings. Given that in the mythology Paimon is the holder of a great deal of information and power, in addition to being close to Lucifer, it makes sense that a cult would gravitate toward him for the best rewards.
Again, the closing scene gives us a close up of Peter and again we are watching him contemplating the horror of the situation he has found himself in. That long shot allows for the audience to soak in everything that has happened, almost in the same time as Peter is. It is a moment which allows for contemplation of the last few frenetic scenes which I really appreciated. Those moments where characters are allowed to come to terms with things alongside the audience are far too rare for my liking.
To sum up, I think that Hereditary, despite some of the backlash it currently seems to be receiving is a film which will hold up on repeat viewings, and even gain more appreciation when it is released on DVD/blu ray. I also hope that the release incorporates much more in the way of the mythology. The film is a perfect example of how marketing and early critical opinion can send people into a film with preconceived notions and how this is a risk when the content of the film is so different to what has been advertised. Still, free from the hype machine, I think it should be considered one of the more daring and interesting mainstream horror films for some time.